Sunday, July 24, 2016

Luke 12.13-21: This Very Night

Jesus tells a parable in the Gospel reading for Proper 13C/Ordinary 18C. The story is set up by a man who wants to make sure he gets his piece of the family financial pie (Luke 12:13-21). Jesus' words are a sobering reminder that it isn't all about money.

Those kinds of reminders are the same sort included by Dutch painters in their 17th-century still life compositions. When looking at these paintings, the viewer is often carried away by the beauty of flowers or the bounty of food that is displayed. Sometimes it is the beautiful silver and glassware depicted that captivates the viewer.

These paintings are more than they seem, however. Often the bouquets of flowers would never (at that time) have been found together in nature because late winter/spring flowers are mixed in with summer and even autumn blooms. That isn't at all unusual for us but in 17th-century Holland such multi-seasonal bouquets were almost impossible. Flowers bloomed when they bloomed and were enjoyed  in season but rarely found out of season, except in pictures. Multi-seasonal bouquets were a reminder of the passing of time.

Still life compositions often showed food and tableware in what might seem to be a meal interrupted. Glassware is often overturned, fruit is being peeled and candles are snuffed out but still smoking. These settings, too, are a reminder of the passing of time. Fruit and food that is left out on the table is already starting to decay, often an insect will be shown on the food as further reminder of the decaying of earthly things.

All of these are called vanitas* paintings as a reminder of the fleeting nature of life. Some of the paintings include in their arrangements - pointedly include - a skull. These types of vanitas paintings are called memento mori. The Latin phrase translated "remember you must die" is the phrase that was whispered in the ear of Roman generals as they processed through the streets of Rome after various victories. The reminder was intended to help them resist believing their own press.

Pieter Claesz. Vanitas Still Life. 1630. The Hague: Mauritshuis.
The painting above, by Pieter Claesz, uses the snuffed out flame, an overturned glass and a watch in addition to the skull to remind the viewer of how fleeting life is. Though there is no gold in the picture, there are other things in which people put their trust every bit as much as the rich man in Jesus' story put his trust in his wealth. He was soon to learn a lesson about what was truly lasting.

*This name is a nod to Ecclesiastes 1:1: Vanity of vanities...all is vanity!

For thoughts on Hosea 11:1-11, click here.

This week on Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page...consider how the idea of the skull and the memento mori might influence another painting of a person in the Bible. Click on the FB link to see the full picture.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Lord's Prayer: Knock Knock

The gospel reading for Proper 12C/Ordinary 7C gives us Luke's version of the Lord's Prayer. The reading takes us past Luke's brief version of the prayer to a discussion of prayer - well, really, more a discussion about asking for things. The conversation addresses things asked for vs. things received as well as about ask-ers and ask-ees. So much of the text is familiar, including the directions to "ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you."

Each imperative has to do with the "asking" nature of prayer. In prayer we ask God for things that we want (things for ourselves, things for others, things for the world). It is the last of the three - knock - that offers us an additional way to talk about the God who would not give us - children of God - a snake when we ask for a fish.

The medieval idea of "sanctuary" was not just an abstract idea. It was a concrete reality. Someone who had committed a crime could come to the cathedral, knock on the door and the door would be opened with no questions asked. Once open, the sanctuary-seeker would be pulled inside the building.

The knocker in the picture below, currently on the door at Durham Cathedral (England), is a reproduction. The 12th-century original is currently on display in the cathedral's museum/treasury. It was more than decorative. Originally on the cathedral's north door, the knocker was available 24/7 for anyone in need of sanctuary within the cloister. People who had committed crimes or misdemeanors, on purpose or accident, could run to the cathedral and knock on the door. Two monks were stationed in small rooms above the door every day and every night in order to hear any knocks and respond quickly. Once accepted into the monastery, the sanctuary-seeker was entitled to 37 days. In that time the accused criminal might be working to explain or settle the offense. They might also be working on a way to get out of England.
In the Levitical code of Hebrew scripture, six cities of refuge are set up (Deuteronomy 4:41ff. and Joshua 20). People who had committed manslaughter (unintentional) could go to those cities to escapethe laws of blood justice and retribution in the rest of the land. Knock and the door will be opened.

That's what would happen at Durham Cathedral. After the knock, the Galilee bell was rung to indicate that someone had been offered sanctuary. Once taken in, the seeker was provided with food, shelter and clothing (a black robe with a yellow St. Cuthbert's cross embroidered on the left shoulder) though was separated from the rest of the church.

Prayer and sanctuary are not exactly the same things, but the idea that upon knocking, the door will be opened is comfort (in its Latin root sense of "with strength") in both sanctuary and prayer.  

For thoughts on Hosea 1:2-10, click here
For additional thoughts on a petition of the Lord's Prayer, click on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook.                                                                       

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Luke 10.38-42: Choose Both

What do you do if you enjoy spending time in the kitchen AND in the library? The gospel reading for Proper 11C/ Ordinary 16C (Luke 10:38-42) is the familiar and overly dichotomized story of Lazarus' sisters: Martha and Mary. They are easily set against one another:
Martha was too busy for Jesus. Mary chose the better part.
Martha was overly concerned with her work in the kitchen. Mary chose the better part.
Martha was a complainer. Mary chose the better part.
Martha is the "active" life. Mary is the "contemplative" (and better) part. 

But  plenty of people have found balance between these false dichotomies. They live a faith that is both active and contemplative. One of the most succinct directives for such a life came from Mother Ann Lee, founder of the Shaker societies that appeared in 19th-century America. Ann Lee was born in England but traveled to America with her "followers" in 1774 after suffering persecution in England. The Shakers (more accurately The United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing) believed in equality of the sexes and races and believed that Ann Lee herself represented the manifestation of Christ's spirit on earth. They practiced celibacy and counted on conversions to grow their numbers. There are currently three Shakers in America.

One of the mottoes of Mother Ann Lee offers wisdom for Mary, Martha and any of us who think that following Jesus means either active or contemplative. Mother Ann's directive was "Hands to work and hearts to God." Mary and Martha should have been happy with that directive. Though not a Shaker design, one of the places to see Mother Ann's directive about hearts and hands translated into design is through the "heart in hand" cookie cutter. The cookie cutter (and its design) is probably more Pennsylvania Dutch than Shaker, but the concepts are related. And both are a good reminder about balance rather than choosing one.

For further information on the last active Shaker community (Sabbathday Lake, ME), see:  For information on Shaker community museums, see: (Hancock Shaker Village, Pittsfield, MA) and (Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, KY).

The cookie cutter (top) is a vintage cutter that is no longer available for sale. The bottom is a contemporary cutter, available at:

For thoughts on Amos 8:1-12, click here.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Luke 10.25-37: Good Samaritan

The gospel reading for Proper 10C/Ordinary 15C could not be more familiar. The passage in Luke's gospel, Luke 10:25-37, tells the story of - of all things - a Samaritan who is good. Go figure. The elements of the story are familiar, but the Victorian painting below is not an illustration of the gospel story. Instead it re-interprets and re-sets the story.
William Small. Good Samaritan. 1899. New Walk Museum and Gallery, Leicester, England. 
For the New Walk Museum, see:
Victorian painting is often dismissed as sentimental, and certainly there is sentiment here, but the painter has engaged the story in a way that still speaks to us and to the text. In this work it is not an adult traveller who is in need of care but a child. The child stands, but is held in a way that calls to mind Mary holding the Christ child on her lap or even the deposition of Jesus from the cross. An anxious father looks on while keeping two other children back from where the doctor is working. All the children are shoeless, and they are currently part of a community of people living in the middle of a field.

In the background at the left is the doctor's carriage. We don't know whether he has come specifically to care for this child or whether he was riding by and, rather than passing by, he stopped to help this child. It is worth noting that during this time doctors expected to be paid for their services. Looking at the family's situation, it is unclear whether any payment is going to be made. Regardless, the doctor is using his stethoscope as part of his examination of this lethargic child.

The painting (and the text) remind us that we are often presented with unexpected opportunities to stop and help. The question is how we respond to a traveler, a child, or anyone in need.

Art&Faith Matters on Facebook highlights an art installation based on Amos 7:7-17.

For additional thoughts on Amos, click here.